I was reading J. D. Robb’s Promises in Death, and suddenly the lines of an early Stephen Sondheim song ran through my head:
Once I hated this city/Now it can’t get me down
Slushy, humid and gritty/What a pretty town….
A wall of rain as it turns to sleet/The lack of sun on a one-way street
I love the grime all the time/And what more do I need?
I grinned, for I had an image of our darling Lieutenant throwing out her arms in Times Square and belting this song to the sky. Well, disregarding the fact that Eve Dallas would have to be pissed as a drunken pigeon and shot up with happy drugs before even contemplating such as thing, I don’t think she’d agree with the sentiment anyway. The song represents a rose-colored view of city living, and Eve sees New York exactly as it is. She loves New York, but she knows it’s equally capable of sin and death.
Mind you, not every author is as assiduous (or has the chance to be as repetitive) as J. D. Robb in depicting their urban settings. Most readers are content to see the landmarks of their beloved cities described accurately, if nothing else. But as every urban denizen knows, surface features do not a city make.
Take the Regency period, for example. If I asked you to name three geographical or commercial features of Regency London, it would be dead easy to rattle off Almack’s, Bond Street, or Vauxhall Gardens without once consulting a reference book, and it’s thanks to Georgette Heyer. Some question the historical accuracy of her language, and yet I dare you to argue that she single-handedly mapped the landscape of the Regency ton as we know it today. However, Georgette Heyer and her followers invariably avoided the seamier side of London, and while later Regency authors uncovered the darker side of humanity (Mary Balogh comes to mind), it was and still is unusual for authors to do the same with London itself – off the top of my head, I can’t think of a (good) Regency romance that gives the reader more than a passing acquaintance with the scenery outside of Mayfair.
But paralleling the advent of social awareness in post-Regency England, authors writing in this era delve frequently into London’s seedier streets. Loretta Chase’s The Last Hellion and Meredith Duran’s Bound By Your Touch, set in 1828 and 1884 respectively, are two such books to whose heroines (both named Lydia) the St. Giles slum of Seven Dials plays an important role. TLH’s Lydia is a reporter who was raised in Seven Dials and frequently journeys there to investigate social injustice; BBYT’s Lydia reaches a turning point in her sheltered life on a rooftop in Seven Dials when she sees the legions of people inhabiting a totally different world from the city she thought she knew. That both Lydias can venture to and from the slum without impunity is a testament to both authors’ skill.
Of course, London is a large, complex city with years of history, and whose overuse in romance novels subjects it to both close scrutiny and clichés, so one can hardly blame authors for being selective in their setting. But with more exotic and possibly smaller locales, one can condense the city into a single portrait. Susan Wiggs’s Lord of the Night and Lydia Joyce’s Music of the Night are both set in Venice, three centuries apart, and exploit the intimate geography of La Serenissima to their advantage – the scenes cut from the Rialto to the Gabbia prison, then meander down canals and jump to the streets of Murano, all within pages. These two authors are also perspicacious enough to recognize Venice’s innate morbidity (view their respective titles), and the darkness provides great depth to their stories.
Not that every city has to depict the good, the bad, and the ugly to be realistic. A Regency tale of the Upper Ten Thousand will restrict the setting to Rotten Row and Lady Jersey, unless plot circumstances are exceptional (or unless the heroine is devoid of brains, and haven’t we seen that before). But even the heroine of Northanger Abbey wasn’t dumb enough to go wandering around the slums of Bath, because it wasn’t relevant. If the only motivation for the bad and the ugly is some insatiable need for a well-rounded setting or a particularly contrived plot (which we’ve seen before), then St. Giles can wait for another story.
But when character and plot lead the setting to a greater scope – ah, then the urban picture fills out. Eve’s job takes her all over New York, and J. D. Robb allows the reader to follow her. Whether or not the author’s 2060 vision is significantly different from the reality, and I don’t think it is, I love travelling with Eve from Cop Central to Soho to the Down and Dirty (mainly ‘cause Crack is cool).
When I think of New York in particular I’m inclined to bring out another Sondheim song, but of very different sentiment to the first:
It’s a city of strangers – some come to work, some to play
A city of strangers – some come to stare, some to stay
And every day, some go away….
And another hundred people just got off of the train
The boundless optimism of the first Sondheim song has its advantages, I suppose. In the face of unrelenting humanity the city can feel anonymous at best and oppressive at worst. But that’s what makes these cities so fascinating, mutability warring with constancy. New York will never be Chicago; Hong Kong will never be Shanghai. Each has a character bound inextricably to its inhabitants. And when authors show the city as a living entity rather than just a collection of buildings – well, that’s almost as good as city living itself.